The etymology of thought comes from the verb to think:
From Old English “imagine, conceive in the mind; consider, meditate, remember; intend, wish, desire” (past tense , past participle ), probably originally “cause to appear to oneself,”
So a thought is something conceived in the mind, caused to appear to oneself. In cognitive science or philosophy of mind these are called “mental representations”.
Much of our thinking or representation is done in abstract, but we can also think in sensory forms such as visual and auditory, and in verbal form as well.
In other words, we can picture, hear, smell, taste and touch things in our minds, and we can talk or listen to ourselves in words, and we can think wordlessly as well.
All our thoughts are representations to our own minds. But what is the purpose or use of such representation?
Some argue that mental representation evolved because it allows us to creatively solve problems by imagining how reality could be different.
But philosophers and scientists also recognise that mental representation is to some degree implicated in our experience of reality. We don’t perceive reality directly, we perceive what our brain has processed and interpreted reality to be.
This gets really interesting when we consider the role cognition plays in our mood and overall mental health. Therapies like CBT explicitly try to alter our mental representations to help us feel better. They train us to change the words, images, and abstract symbols we create in our minds.
It turns out that constantly telling yourself “life is just too hard” will make you feel pretty bad about living. Or that traumatic experiences of abuse, threat, and violence can persist for decades in your mind as representations of possible dangers you may have to face at any moment.
Representations are powerful. Thought is powerful. And we recognise most clearly in cases of trauma and mental illness that others’ mental representations are not serving them. But we struggle to recognise it in ourselves, and above all we collectively struggle to see anything awry when our negative mental representations are considered “normal” simply because they are widely shared.
It is inspiring and uplifting to know that when we change our representations we change our reality on a profound level. Not only can we recover from the destructive and limiting stories of the past, but we can surpass or simply discard what others consider “normal” as well.